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Moving on: Applying to university

This month, we’ve written another article for Inside Times ‘Through the Gate’ section which focuses on applying to university.

A copy of the article can be found below.

I’m thinking of applying to university when I leave prison. Will my criminal record cause me a problem?

For many people, prison can be an ideal opportunity to improve their education, be it their numeracy or literacy skills or by undertaking distance learning courses, often funded by the Prisoners Education Trust. Your prison education department should be able to provide you with further information and may be able to assist you in completing application forms. But, what if you’re planning to apply to university once you’ve left prison?

Although universities are generally considered quite welcoming towards people with convictions who are interested in learning, they do still ask about criminal convictions. However, for many courses you will usually only be expected to disclose unspent convictions and then, only if your offence is deemed to be a ‘relevant’ conviction.

What is a ‘relevant’ conviction?

UCAS (the organisation responsible for dealing with the majority of applications for full-time study at university) have defined what they mean by a ‘relevant’ conviction. It covers quite a lot of ‘categories’ of offence, including those involving:

  • Any kind of violence;
  • Offences listed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003;
  • The unlawful supply of controlled drugs;
  • Offences involving firearms;
  • Offences involving arson;
  • Offences listed in the Terrorism Act 2003.

So, if your conviction(s) doesn’t involve one of the above, then you won’t need to disclose it on the UCAS application form.

What if I’m applying for a course where I’ll be working with children?

If you’re considering a course which would involve things like placements with children or vulnerable adults then the university will usually do an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS)  check. In this case you will need to disclose all your convictions to the university (both spent and unspent).

Will the university accept me if I disclose my convictions?

If you disclose your convictions, you shouldn’t automatically be refused a place. There are good practice guidelines that universities should be working to that set out how they should handle your application. However, if you choose not to disclose and the university find out then they will probably see this as a breach of trust and won’t progress your application.

Once you’ve disclosed, the university will normally contact you, asking you to provide additional information about your conviction to help them carry out an assessment. They might set up a ‘panel’ to consider your case. Although this might sound daunting, make the most of this opportunity as it will give you the chance to provide evidence that you’ve taken responsibility for your actions and sought to address your offending behaviour. You should also describe what you’ve done since you received your conviction – for example any courses that you’ve taken and try to reassure the university that you don’t pose any risk to students, staff, visitors etc. The university should then consider any risks that they think are present, as well as whether you are able to meet any particular professional or statutory requirements that may exist for the course that you’re applying for.

What can I do if the university refuse my application?

We know lots of people that have been to prison that have gone on to successfully study at university. But sometimes people do get refused. If that happens to you, the university will often provide you with details of how you can appeal their decision.

It is always worth lodging an appeal if you’re given the opportunity to do so – you’ve got nothing to lose. You should make sure you set out your case clearly and concisely and avoid being too hostile or over emotional. We have spoken to and helped many people to successfully appeal a university’s decision.

What is Unlock doing?

We believe that people with convictions applying to university should be considered first and foremost on their skills and abilities rather than by the fact that they have a criminal record.

We are encouraging the government, UCAS and universities to remove questions about criminal records from the initial application stage and separating academic merit decisions with judgements around a past criminal record, which should come later in the process. In the meantime, we are working with UCAS to amend their application process and improve the guidance around disclosure on their application forms.



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Photo of Head of Advice, Debbie Sadler
Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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